‘Locusts have reached Parel. Shut all your windows. Stay indoors.’ A message came on a trusted Whatsapp group. It was followed by photographs of locusts perched on brooms, upon window panes. More messages flowed. 

‘There are some perched on my friend’s balcony near Simla House.’

‘Locusts at Imperial heights.’

Someone sent a video taken from a window, ‘Look, locusts in Tardeo!’

There had been news stories about locust swarms coming from the hot plains of Africa, across the deserts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan into the Thar desert in Rajasthan. There had been swarms sighted in Jaipur a couple of days ago. 

I had researched desert locust when I was writing my short novel, Bhaunri. I knew that they moved at a speed of 100 to 150 kms in a day, that they were voracious pests and ate their own body weight in green vegetation every day.

I had heard stories of a swarm denuding fields in a matter of minutes, scrunching through grain filled ears, leaves and stems. While writing about a locust swarm, a faka, in Bhaunri, I had wondered whether the episode might seem dated. For after all, I hadn’t heard of locust swarms occurring in recent times. Also, weren’t locusts one of the ten biblical plagues of Egypt? But the faka and its images and its destructive metaphor bore no resistance and I had to write it into Bhaunri, complete with a tribe of Kalbeliyas and a Nath Jogi.

And now, here were the locusts, arriving literally at my doorstep. I went around closing all windows and worried about the beautiful green trees which have sheltered both, the birds and my mind, during this pandemic.

More messages, with same photographs, proliferated across WhatsApp groups. As I watched over the still summer afternoon, glittering fruit flies and an occasional wasp sailing through the sluggish air, I began thinking. Something was off about the locust alarm. The pictures which had come through were all of lone insects whereas locusts are generally gregarious and the news from other parts of the country had been of swarms.

In fact, the videos from Jaipur showed masses of them flying into gardens and backyards, festooning electric wires, covering wire-meshed windows, swathes of them hanging from rope-cots and bicycles.

Also, there was no confirmation anywhere in media of sightings of locusts in Mumbai, no alert sounded by the Department of Agriculture or the Meteorological Department or the Municipal Commission. Also, how was it possible that a plague of locusts was in the city and the Twitter remained fairly calm, or what passes for calm for Twitter?

I watched the video that had been sent. There were definitely insects teeming outside the barred window from which the video was taken but they were much smaller and looked like bees swarming, the same characteristic incessant, quick movement which seems to draw patterns in air. 

I did some image searches and soon it was clear that the photos of locusts being circulated, about their arrival into Mumbai, were images off the net. Also, given the wind and weather conditions, the likelihood of a swarm in Bombay seemed very low. By evening, the Bombay Municipal Corporation confirmed that there were no locusts in Bombay.

This set me thinking. I consider myself a fairly careful person and as a rule, do not believe WhatsApp forwards without checking. However, this time I had been prepared to believe the locusts. I puzzled over the reasons for my letting go of my skepticism. A little thinking made my own motivations clear to me – firstly, the first message was not a forward but a message from a neighbour I know and respect. Subsequent ones were from similar people too. Secondly, the news of swarms for several day and their confirmed presence in Jaipur, my own home-town, had primed me to believe that the insects may enter cities. Thirdly, I had used a swarm as a device in my book.

What we create, affects us and I concluded that I was predisposed to believe the presence of locusts in Bombay. This has been a lesson in self-awareness for me. From now onwards, I will not only check others’ claims but sift through my own thinking-process as well. The thief that causes the treasure to be stolen usually is an insider. 

Views are the author’s own. Im

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